The decision could mean RNC attendees must comply at the arena or be turned away.
Florida health care experts are calling for more precautions to stop COVID-19’s spread in public places and during the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville as city officials announced a mandatory face mask order that took effect 5 p.m. June 29.
Duval County residents are required to wear cloth or medical face coverings in public and indoor places or “in other situations where individuals cannot be socially distanced,” city Director of Public Affairs Nikki Kimbleton said June 29.
Kimbleton and Mayor Lenny Curry’s Chief of Staff Jordan Elsbury said the decision was made the morning of June 29 after consulting with local hospital officials and health experts.
Elsbury said enforcement will rely mostly on personal responsibility.
“(Hospital officials) advised us on the importance of wearing masks now for months, which is why every bit of messaging, every single press conference, the mayor has reiterated that point,” Elsbury said. “Today, we had a conversation specifically about a mandate and that’s how we ended up at the policy position today.”
Elsbury said the decision was based on guidance from local hospital officials and protocol at Naval Air Station Jacksonville and other area U.S. Navy installations that require masks to be worn on base.
The announcement was a reversal for Curry, who said in a news conference June 16 that Duval County would not enforce universal mask wearing. The mayor did not attend the June 29 news conference and has not personally addressed the decision to mandate face coverings.
Kimbleton said Curry’s absence was due to a “prior family commitment.”
“By no means is Mayor Curry absent for any reason other than he had a very important prior family commitment,” Kimbleton said. “The mask mandate, that was something that was very fluid and decisions were being made this morning.”
Doctors speak out
The decision to require masks is in line with health experts’ advice that face coverings slow the spread of COVID-19.
Kimbleton said city officials received the letter at 4 p.m. June 27 signed by 17 Jacksonville doctors and more than 100 physicians statewide urging Curry and Gov. Ron DeSantis to require certain safeguards at the RNC scheduled in Jacksonville Aug. 24-27.
The letter lays out three requests for the convention: Require convention attendees to wear masks and social distance; implement “rapid and aggressive” testing in Jacksonville and surrounding areas; and implement rigorous screening and safety procedures inside the convention arena, such as temperature checks, hand-washing and sanitizing stations, and frequent cleaning of the facility.
The convention speeches from President Donald Trump and other GOP officials and guests are expected to happen inside VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena Downtown.
“As health professionals, we are concerned at the Republican National Committee’s decision to hold its convention acceptance speech and celebration in Jacksonville at a time when COVID-19 infections and deaths in Florida are on the rise,” the letter read.
The Republican Party of Duval County said 12,000 to 15,000 people could gather inside the arena to hear Trump’s nomination acceptance speech.
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said June 29 he’s coordinating with federal officials on security for the RNC, and will help draft a detailed health and safety enforcement protocol for the event as it draws closer.
If the mask mandate still is in place when the RNC begins, Williams said people trying to enter the venues without a mask could be turned away.
“Of course, if you’re walking into a venue and you don’t have a mask, you wouldn’t be allowed in. Off the top of my head, that’s one of the quick and easy solutions to that,” Williams said.
The decision to mandate masks was made after two weeks of local and statewide increases in confirmed cases and in the percentage of tests returning positive. According to the daily report from the Florida Department of Health, Duval County recorded 260 one-day confirmed coronavirus cases June 28.
The latest number is a drop from a peak of 726 cases recorded June 27. The cumulative percentage of positive COVID-19 tests and the daily percentages have been increasing in the past two weeks.
City Chief of Emergency Preparedness Division Steve Woodard said June 29 that Duval County’s cumulative test rate was 5.76%, compared to 7.5% statewide. The number of daily tests returning positive was 13.3% on June 28, which has seen a nearly steady increase from 5.2% on June 15.
Testing locally has increased, which city officials say is one of the primary factors in the rising number of confirmed cases. Duval County has tested 101,456 people since March.
The Lot J testing site at TIAA Bank Field processed 864 tests June 28 and another 400 were administered in one day at the Legends Center and Gymnasium testing site.
Florida has recorded 146,341 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began in February, according to the state health department. In Duval, 5,839 people have been confirmed with the virus.